Blog post

Innovation during the COVID-19 Healthcare Supply Chain Response: Failure Is Not an Option

By Eric O'Daffer | April 23, 2020 | 2 Comments

COVID-19 is Healthcare’s Apollo 13.  If you don’t remember the space mission, you might remember the 1995 movie with the same title.   In the climactic moment of the mission, the command module suffers damage and the astronauts are in jeopardy.    A group of engineers in Houston have to teach the astronauts to adapt the lunar module as their vehicle for their return to earth using only things they have available to them 238,000 miles away. Failure is not an option and innovation saves the day.

The COVID-19 response in Healthcare is not an exact parallel of course.   But after talking to supply chain leaders deployed in command centers at IDNs, innovation is alive and well.  In fact, my thoughts on what is possible and how innovation is driven in an organization has been completely changed.     For seven years now, I have led our healthcare supply chain innovation research.    And while the criteria for what is innovative holds up well, the process for innovating may need an update.  The mindset we historically had was that to innovate an organization needed a rigorous innovation culture.  This has not held true.   Need beats culture in this case.  Need drives the speed of innovative solutions at a breadth and scale we had not anticipated.

When you give out awards for innovation, you must define what it is.   In our case (see Figure 1) it is a capability driven recently that breaks new ground, is collaborative, sustainable over time and impactful to patient care, total cost or both.

Healthcare Supply Chainnovator Criteria

Each year for the past seven, we have received 15-20 submissions for this award.    This year we announce the winners for 2020 on June 9th at 10 AM EDT (

In 2021, we expect to triple the number of healthcare provider innovation submissions.      Every IDN I talk to is solving problems in the “response phase” of the COVID-19 pandemic with innovation.     Some innovations have common themes but there are nuances as well in how collaboration, speed and impact collided in these diverse areas:

  1. Improving demand planning and inventory management capabilities
  2. Launching donation management programs
  3. Re-processing critical PPE items
  4. Developing self-manufacturing capabilities for PPE
  5. Leveraging local manufacturers for supplies and equipment
  6. Collaborating with global manufacturers
  7. Building streamlined global sourcing capabilities
  8. Funding data and analytics functions to digitize the supply chain
  9. Managing patient care space and equipment in new ways
  10. Optimizing physical supply chain assets like CSCs and laundries
  11. Utilizing telemedicine and home-care more strategically

That is a long list of innovations.   Pause and re-read it.   Reflect for a moment that these innovations were accomplished in less than 90 days and not just at one IDN but dozens each if not hundreds for some.  The scale, scope and speed are staggering.

Like Apollo 13, the story of supply chain’s response to COVID-19 is not a complete success or a resounding failure.   There are pockets of triumph and survival and pockets of sorrow and humility.   But, all in all, the ability to innovate and persevere are front and center.    As IDNs in some geographies move to the “recovery phase” where elective procedures return, I expect even more supply chain innovations as IDNs adapt again to a new challenge.     My one and only recommendation for now is to keep accelerating your expectations for innovation.   Agility matters in the healthcare supply chain response.


Gartner produces a wide array of COVID-19 content publicly available here.  My colleague Andrew Knight also publishes a weekly Research Roundup blog.    Would love your feedback on these areas of innovation – areas I missed or new areas your organization is exploring.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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  • Dave Reed says:

    Great comments Eric. As I read the Apollo 13 example, it reminded me of the many times I used the “failure is not an option” statement. Your comments also highlighted to me that often organizations don’t have an innovation culture but individuals do and will take a risk at times in spite of the organizational culture. This is where the true hero’s live at times of crisis.
    Dave Reed

  • Inspiring story. Difficult times always reward smarts and creativity. As we trade off-leased computers, we had to face double problem: 1/persuade clients that our used equipment is Covid-19 safe, 2/get additional supply owing strong demand for cheap laptops for remote work. Result? 170% of the sales plan.